Lifestyle & Family

Fairy tales, the writing life, and disability representation: An interview with Amanda Leduc

Amanda Leduc is the author of The Miracles of Ordinary Men (2013), Disfigured (2020) and The Centaur’s Wife (2021). She has cerebral palsy and lives in Hamilton, Ont. She works as the communications coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). FOLD is Canada’s first festival for diverse authors and stories.

COURTNEY WZ: Disfigured talks about fairy tales and their impact on storytelling. What do you think makes fairy tales so timeless and universal?

AMANDA LEDUC: There’s something very familiar about fairy tales. We’ve all been exposed to them for so long, especially in Western culture.

For me, fairy tales fall into two camps. There’s the story with trials and tribulations, and then a triumph when the story ends happily ever after. The happier fairy tales tend to be an escape. There’s this idea that you’re reaching toward positive things in society. If you work really hard, have faith and hope, you’ll get your happy ending.

Then there are the ones that end unhappily, or are a bit more difficult or not Disney-fied. For me, they mirror the way sometimes things don’t work out. That’s despite the fact that you might work really hard or try to do things right.

Photo courtesy of Amanda Leduc

When traumatic things happen to us, you can’t necessarily use escapism to reckon with them. When I deal with grief or large life issues, I’ve found it’s helpful to read difficult, hard-to-move-through stories. It mirrors how life itself can be difficult to move through.

Essentially, I think we are drawn to fairy tales for reasons that help us get through life. Escapism is a very important part of learning how to survive and thrive. You need to turn away from difficult things every now and again and imagine yourself in a better world. I think fairy tales work in both of those realms.

CWZ: You said you started writing stories when you were five years old, stating it’s “something that makes you special.” Can you share more about your writing journey? How has writing helped you understand yourself and the world around you? 

AL: Writing was the only thing I wanted to do for a long time. I was always reading. I was always thinking about creating stories. When I was five, I was writing these little stories and putting them in construction paper covers for school projects. 

I published my first book in 2013, [The Miracles of Ordinary Men], and it did OK. As most books do, it came out, and it had its heyday. Then it kind of disappeared and I went back to my regular life. That was tough for me. I had spent so much time working towards this. It came out when I was 31. This idea that I wanted to be an author was 26 years in the making. Then I published a book, and it was at once everything that I imagined it would be, and also not. It felt, in many ways, smaller than what I had hoped.

It’s my work with the FOLD that made me come to terms with being a disabled woman. It really spurred me to think about what it meant for me to be a disabled child. It was something I hadn’t  thought about for years. I really tried to run away from it when I was younger. I felt like that made my life seem “less than” to the world. I wanted to pretend it had nothing to do with me.

When I look back on all of my writing, I’ve always been interested in fantasy and fabulous different narratives. I’ve always been interested in the spectre of difference: what it means to be different in the world. Even though I didn’t realize it for a long time, it was because I was writing about disability. I was interested in what it meant to have a disabled body in the world. It’s been really cool to look back on my writing. I was always writing toward that even when I wasn’t thinking about it explicitly.

In that sense, there is something very fairy-tale-esque to me about that. It’s the idea of returning to the thing you’ve always been afraid of in order to move on and triumph.

CWZ: In Disfigured, you state that as a young writer, “no one is disabled in these stories.” Do you think if  stories you read had better disability representation, you might’ve written different stories from an earlier age?

AL: Definitely. I think I would’ve been more comfortable with writing about disability and understanding it’s a normal part of life.

The wider non-disabled society is conditioned to think of disability as something totally incapacitating. People don’t actually recognize how varied disability is.

I wish that had been more widely understood when I was younger. It would have definitely changed my writing.

I’m really glad we’re having these conversations now. There’s a whole generation of young disabled writers who are coming out now with their narratives. They’re really open and proud about this part of their identity. We’re seeing more mainstream representation of disability in TV shows, stories and films. It’s really great.

But it does need to continue. Disability is so widely varied. You see one character with cerebral palsy, and that’s just one character. There’s so many different ways you can portray cerebral palsy on the screen, or blindness and so on. I think that’s where we still need to keep pushing. We need to recognize that disability has so many different faces, and get comfortable with that. Then we start showing stories with these different faces.

People who see themselves represented become more comfortable with telling their own stories. This leads to more representation in the mainstream media. It’s a snowball that grows.

CWZ: As an adult, does the lack of disability representation in literature fuel your writing? What fueled you to write Disfigured? Do you find yourself writing for yourself, for others, maybe for your younger self?

AL: In the course of writing Disfigured, I had to reckon with my own identity as a disabled person. It brought me face to face with the lack of representation in mainstream media. I think it radicalized me in some key way.

I was sort of aware of it beforehand. Doing research for Disfigured and figuring out where my own narrative sat made me recognize the ramifications of it all.

From there, I had to figure out what my responsibilities were as a disabled writer. How can I talk about it, and in what ways? In what ways am I and my experience suited to putting these things out into the wider conversation?

Photo of Amanda Leduc
Photo courtesy of Amanda Leduc

CWZ: I’d like to imagine the future of disability representation for a moment. What recommendations do you have for writers? What stories do you want to see?

AL: I think we need to see more disability stories specifically about navigating the world with a disability. You can have a main character who is disabled. The story follows how they move through the world and the challenges they encounter. A lot of people who aren’t disabled don’t recognize what it means to move through the world with a disability. They need to see it. They need to come face to face with that reckoning and existence. That’s the only way people are going to become aware of the barriers in society.

I would also love to see stories where characters are disabled but it’s not the plot’s focus. You can have a law show and one of the lawyers has a wheelchair, but it’s not necessarily about them in a wheelchair. They just work as a lawyer, and there are ramps into all of the rooms.

These stories would help us see how widespread disability is in society. It’s important for us to recognize how the world needs to change. Ultimately, understanding that disability actually isn’t that big of a deal. People are allowed to go about their lives and do whatever they want, and they can thrive.

As disabled advocates and disability rights advocates, we could focus solely on telling more first-person disabled stories. But then the focus becomes myopic and it’s just a disabled story or a disabled character. Disability is the total focus of their life when that’s not the case. It needs to be both of those things. Hopefully it helps to move change along a little bit faster.

CWZ: Do you have any encouragement for people who want to share their own stories but don’t feel like there’s an audience for them?

AL: I think all writers worry about whether there’s an audience for their stories.

When I was writing Disfigured, I recognized these are books I’d have really liked to read when I was younger. I also ask myself, ‘Is this a book that would have helped me? Is this a book that I would have loved? What are the kinds of books that I want to read?’

I’m writing for myself as an audience first. Then if I like a book, there is going to be someone out there who will also like it.

I think what’s also been key for me is the people who have engaged with my work. They’ve found something of value in it and really connected with it in gratifying and lovely ways. Regardless of your audience’s size, your book will find its way to people. Your stories will impact people in meaningful ways.

This interview was conducted over Zoom and has been edited for length and clarity.

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